Everyone loves to ride a hot trend, but in too many cases, the hysteria is much bigger than deserved.
When it comes to hot trends, it's hard to come up with a hotter one than Chinese stocks. But as I see it, the "invest in China" craze has reached irrational proportions, and it's time to start paring any picks specifically intended to capitalize on the Far East's alleged surge in consumerism.
The rest of the story
It's hard to argue that China hasn't been an investment-worthy spot in recent months. The country's nearly $600 billion in government stimulus occurred almost entirely in the first half of the year, and the Chinese economy has responded quickly. China's annualized gross domestic product growth during the second quarter rolled in at 7.9%, topping previous estimates of 6.1% by a wide margin.
The fiscal strength trickled into stock prices, too. The Shanghai Composite has risen 65% so far this year, handily beating results in the U.S. and most of the rest of the world.
Yet to understand China, you have to look beyond government spending and stock prices to the underlying economy. Take a look at some of the data suggesting China's consumers aren't faring as well as the country's industries:
- The official "urban unemployment" rate of only 4.3% sounds wonderful, but it doesn't consider the 60% of the country's residents employed in the private sector.
- According to one government official, around 3 million recent college graduates in China -- roughly a third of the total -- can't find work, 30 million previously employed workers lost their jobs late last year, and about 2 million migrant workers remain out of work.
- Yes, China's banks are lending, but that's likely because the government is strongly urging them to lend. In the first half of the year, lending was up 28% to more than $1 trillion, but does higher lending make sense with high unemployment? Keep reading ...
- The People's Bank of China recently said nearly 5 billion yuan (about 730 million U.S. dollars) in credit card debt was more than 60 days late for the first half of 2009, an increase of 133% from the year-ago period.
Those are hardly signs of healthy Chinese consumers.
Tightened purse strings
I don't want to imply that tepid consumerism in China is a permanent condition. It's simply a condition that hasn't gotten better yet, and I don't see any real catalyst on the horizon to improve things.
For instance, look at Yum! Brands
Yet companies continue to invest in China. Coca-Cola
The beverage makers aren't alone. Ford's
Getting back to work
My point is that for China's consumers to really start spending again, a lot more of them have to find jobs. But that may not happen anytime soon. Although some argue that a global rebound will spur Chinese job growth, I'm not so sure now.
Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke has said the U.S. recession is very likely over, yet unemployment here remains at multiyear highs. Moreover, despite all the green shoots, China's exports were down 23% for August, compared with last year. That doesn't bode well for a Chinese hiring spree, and poses the possibility of a true jobless global recovery.
From the way share prices have jumped, though, it's apparent that investors are counting on China paying off in a big way. That makes U.S. consumer stocks with big China stakes heavy on risk now. With prices already assuming China will keep performing well, shareholders should look out below if actual results fall short of those lofty expectations.